Feds investigate Uber over use of tool to evade Philly authorities

 (Jeff Chiu/AP file photo)

(Jeff Chiu/AP file photo)

Federal law enforcement officials are investigating Uber’s use of software that blocked local transportation regulators from conducting sting operations against the ride-hailing company in Philadelphia.

On Friday, a U.S. Department of Justice representative based in San Francisco informed Philadelphia Parking Authority officials that the probe into Uber’s use of  “Greyball” technology has extended to Philadelphia. 

“The PPA is cooperating with federal law enforcement officials and providing all of the information that we have regarding this software program,” said PPA spokesman Martin O’Rourke.

Transportation officials in Portland, Oregon, first revealed the federal inquiry when they acknowledged in a one-paragraph section of a 55-page city audit that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California notified Portland officials about a federal inquiry, which is reportedly criminal in nature.

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The Greyball technology identifies certain phone numbers as being associated with law enforcement or local regulators, then launches a fake version of the app that bars those users from calling a car — thereby preventing regulators from conducting sting operations through its app.

Uber, which now operates legally in all of Pennsylvania, was the target of occasional PPA sting operations while the service was illegal in Philadelphia as regulators attempted to ensnare Uber drivers and impound their vehicles.

Federal officials suspect the Greyball tool sometimes thwarted those efforts.

Uber used the technology in a number of other cities — including Boston and Las Vegas —  where regulators also attempted to crack down on the service.

One condition of the settlement agreement between Uber and the PPA in December recognized that Greyball app-jamming techniques were used to evade regulators in Philadelphia, according to the settlement agreement. 

“PPA shall provide Uber with a list of all credit cards and telephone numbers that the PPA believes has been discontinued as a result of their enforcement activities,” according to the agreement. “Uber will reinstate any of those that were terminated for violating the terms and conditions of the Uber digital platform and for which the PPA has identified as being used in the performance of their duties as an employee of the PPA. “

A spokesman from Mayor Jim Kenney’s office would not comment on the investigation. An Uber official also declined to provide a response.

In March, a report in the New York Times chronicled how Uber has been using Greyball to deceive authorities worldwide, raising questions about the legality of the practice. Some experts believe use of the tool could be considered illegal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or intentional obstruction of justice.

After the story, Uber agreed to prohibit its employees from using the software to escape local sting operations.

Uber said it’s used Greyball in some cities to jam the apps of users who may be a danger to drivers after reported threats of violence.

“The use of Greyball technology varies from market to market,” Uber lawyers wrote to the city of Portland in an official letter. “Greyballing refers to a technological instruction that can be used for a variety of purposes.”

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